“The concept of good health being a basis for performance was alien to me as an athlete for a long time, and I paid a high price….”
Organic, Grass-Fed or Free Range: Does This Really Matter?
Most shoppers walking down the meat aisle of any supermarket are aware of an array of choice with different price ranges for products that seem to be the same on the face of it. Pork can cost 10-20%, beef 30% and chicken 40-50% more when carrying a label of ‘Free Range’, ‘Organic’ or ‘Grass-fed’.
So What Is The Difference and Does This Justify the Price Gap?
Chicken has the biggest price difference between conventionally and organically raised birds.
There is a reason for this, under conventionally raised conditions birds are kept at 30,000 to a shed. Therefore, they spend almost their entire lives inside.
Their lives are so far removed from that of birds living in the natural environment they tend to be extremely unhealthy. This is medicated with the regular feeding of antibiotics to stop the spread of infection. The birds are generally fed GMO corn and soy due to low cost. All of this combined allows much greater production, reducing the price per bird far lower (1).
Free range flocks are smaller, rarely exceeding 3,000 with guaranteed access to 10m2 outdoor space per bird. If organic they are only fed organic crops (see blog on organic plant foods) and whatever they forage when spending time outside. Chickens are monogastric (single stomach) omnivores and require a variety of food sources to thrive (2,3).
Similarly to chicken, pigs bred indoors are kept in concrete cubicles with limited ability to move, fed on GMO corn/soy products and antibiotics.
Outdoor reared pigs have a straw bedded sty and permanent access to an outside area where they are able to root and forage as they would in a natural environment. The term ‘organic’ refers to the type of feed they are fed. Pigs are also monogastric and relying solely on grain feed is not best for their well being (4,5).
Organic in beef refers to type of feed used (GMO or not), level of antibiotic use (regular or only when necessary) and in some cases whether hormones are used in feed (as of writing this does not apply to UK beef).
Though grass fed and organic are not synonymous, it is not feasible to have a grass-fed cow that is not organic. Although most organic beef will be grass fed, you could also have a conventionally raised cow that is organic according to the stipulations given above with reference to feed, antibiotics and hormones (6).
Cows are ruminants which means unlike pigs and chickens have four stomachs, including a rumen where food is fermented as part of the digestive process. This actually makes their eating requirements more specific.
Cows have evolved to eat grass. They can graze on pasture the entirety of their lives without access to other foods and be optimally healthy.
A cow actually can’t survive on only grains and for this reason even grain fed cows actually eat grass for the majority of their life only switching to grains for the last 20% of their time prior to slaughter (7).
How Does This Effect the Food We Eat?
What pigs and chickens are fed directly effects the composition of their bodies, because they are monogastric animals. That means a chicken or pig on GMO soy and corn will have fatty tissue that expresses the main fat found in these foods, giving them a high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids, which can contribute to inflammatory processes (both for the animal and for you if consumed) (8–10).
There is also a fatty acid difference in beef for cows that are grass-fed their whole lives compared to those that are grain finished.
However, ruminants are generally better at converting the foods they consume into the fatty acid profile they require through the fermentation process in their gut. As this is the case even in grain finished cattle the omega 6 / omega 3 ratio tends to not be as different as in chicken and pigs (11,12).
So What Does Antibiotic Resistance Have To Do With This?
Independent government bodies regularly test for traces of antibiotics within meat that may have been incorporated from the antibiotics used within the feed.
Though antibiotic residues are found, these tend to be rare (some studies suggesting 1/1000 samples). They tend to be more likely in chickens and pigs and extremely rare in animals raised organically (13).
However, an issue from persistent antibiotic use that should be taken extremely seriously is that of antibiotic resistance. You may have heard of this term in reference to the overuse of antibiotics in humans causing the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
The antibiotics in animal feed are a huge contributor towards this issue. Constant feeding of unhealthy feedlot animals with antibiotics ensures that more and more strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria evolve.
To put in perspective, against anti-bacterial infection antibiotics is still our only line of defence.
Antibiotic resistance is a serious concern when it comes to the possibility of an infectious disease pandemic for which we have no answer (14).
Could We Be Exposed To Traces of Growth Hormones?
As stated this is currently not permitted under UK or EU law but is under US law. The relevance of this may be more impactful if we sign a trade agreement with the States that involves lowering our food standards.
There is evidence that hormones used to increase growth rates in cattle (such as IGF-1) do show up in the milk. Consumption so far has not been shown to alter levels in humans. However, this is short term trials, we do not know what the long term consequences of exposure to trace amounts of these hormones are (15,16).
There have been several claims levelled against animal agriculture particularly from documentaries with overblown claims on the effect of animal agriculture on the environment.
One of the most famous claims is that 51% of all greenhouse gases are from animal agriculture. But this statement was based on one highly flawed study that has since been redacted. Recent studies from the FAO suggest that 9% of all green house gas emissions may be from agriculture of which 4% is animal agriculture (17).
Although, this doesn’t mean there is not an environmental concern with factory farming that can be addressed.
Considering the recent history of the Earth taking the most Quaternary period into account, the norm for great swathes of the Earth’s surface was grasslands grazed by herds of ruminant animals.
Due to this, the grass evolved to be eaten by herbivores and in turn be defecated on providing vital fertilizer to grow again. The animals that grazed the grass were predated upon by carnivorous animals which kept the population in check, ensuring that the grass was never over grazed.
This is a simplistic example of an ecosystem, take away any one element and the rest collapses resulting in depleted soil and desertification (18–20).
Humans have impacted on many such ecosystems on the planet in this way by disturbing the symbiotic balance.
But our farming needn’t be this way.
It is possible to farm mimicking the natural grazing of animals ensuring the quality of the soil is maintained and the land is not depleted. This sort of regenerative farming has been shown to be a net carbon sink, taking more carbon from the atmosphere than it puts in.
This is the power of healthy soil which is not only essential for agriculture but is important for the survival of our species long term. We cannot only take nutrients for the soil, we have to also put back in as nature intended (21–23).
When considering your choice of animal product there is some argument to say that organic, free range and grass fed is superior. However, when considering soil health, environment, antibiotic resistance and animal welfare, there is no question that animals raised more naturally are better off.
The most powerful message you can send as a consumer is in your choice of produce. If the market determines that free range animal agriculture is in more demand, the supply will expand.
Cheap meat may seem like a short-term win, but why should meat be cheap? Most of human history saw incredible investment of time and effort into the procurement of meat – is there a reason it should be different now?
These are interesting questions that are worth considering when we make our purchasing choices.
2. Jones T, Feber R, Hemery G, Cook P, James K, Lamberth C, et al. Welfare and environmental benefits of integrating commercially viable free-range broiler chickens into newly planted woodland: A UK case study. Agric Syst. 2007;
16. Melnik BC, John SM, Schmitz G. Over-stimulation of insulin/IGF-1 signaling by western diet may promote diseases of civilization: Lessons learnt from laron syndrome. Nutrition and Metabolism. 2011.
18. Cordova CE, Johnson WC, Mandel RD, Palmer MW. Late Quaternary environmental change inferred from phytoliths and other soil-related proxies: Case studies from the central and southern Great Plains, USA. Catena. 2011;
19. Semprebon GM, Rivals F. Was grass more prevalent in the pronghorn past? An assessment of the dietary adaptations of Miocene to Recent Antilocapridae (Mammalia: Artiodactyla). Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol. 2007;
20. Rivals F, Solounias N, Mihlbachler MC. Evidence for geographic variation in the diets of late Pleistocene and early Holocene Bison in North America, and differences from the diets of recent Bison. Quat Res. 2007;
21. Kairis O, Karavitis C, Salvati L, Kounalaki A, Kosmas K. Exploring the Impact of Overgrazing on Soil Erosion and Land Degradation in a Dry Mediterranean Agro-Forest Landscape (Crete, Greece). Arid L Res Manag. 2015;
Evolutionarily speaking, every genetic polymorphism that exists must have conveyed evolutionary advantage at some point or it would not exist. For example, in the context of food scarcity, a gene that encourages calorie-dense food consumption may be an advantage.